From Liberty Street: A Single Gift

John Turner

A couple weeks ago my daughter called me to say that she was reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I told her that was good but warned that in Zinn she was not getting a standard version of America's past but rather what most scholars view as a strongly ideological version. She said that was all right. At least it would inform her about major events and she could take account of the author's slant.

Then, yesterday, on Book TV, I saw Zinn giving an address at Brandeis University. He went through the same story I have heard from him before, emphasizing abstractions and not delving too much into details. One of his common points, however, struck me more strongly this time than on prevision occasions when I've listened to him.

The government of a country is not the same thing as the country.

More and more, recently, I've become aware that the terminology we use to designate a political unit strongly influences how we think of it. When we speak or write of this thing commonly called America is it a nation, a government, a people, or a geographical region? And what, exactly, do we mean by any of these terms? What, for example, is a "nation?"

Politicians, for the most part, would like us to lump all these notions together and not to think carefully about distinguishing them because when we do we become far more manipulatable than when we see different things for being what they are.

In one respect, at least, Mr. Zinn is perfectly correct: a government is not the same thing as a country.

When journalists write of "America," or "Washington," or "the United States," they are generally referring not just to the government of the United States but to a limited portion of it, the part that is concentrated in the White House. From that practice it's only a small step to viewing what "America" does as somehow reflecting both the opinions and the interests of the people of the United States. When we reach that point we are confronting not just obfuscation but an outright lie.

Throughout history most governments have supported not the well-being of the people they ruled over but just a tiny portion of those people. And in most cases, governments have been willing to sacrifice the good of a majority of the people in order to benefit a small group of powerful men. The United States, despite sweety-pie tales of democracy and patriotism, has been no exception to the general rule.

The serious question about any government is not whether is "of the people." It never is. What we need to know is what portion of its actions are taken to benefit the majority of the people. In the United States, politicians generally praise "us" for having a government that does care about the people, but it's pretty clear that, except for limited periods, barely half the governmental actions are designed to address the genuine needs of the population. Half is pretty good compared to many other governments but it's far from being what we are incessantly told it is. A goodly portion of government effort is devoted to keeping the people dutiful and persuading them to believe that when they do as they are told by the government they are "serving" the nation. We have seen that effort at work notably since March of 2003, as  the government has labored to convince the people -- and their families -- who have thrown their lives away in support of a corrupt and fatuous invasion of another country that they have "given" their lives for their nation. I struggle with the question of whether it is better for people who surrender existence in this way to be consoled by the delusion or to die -- or grieve -- facing the bitter truth of what has happened.

Ilan Pappe, in his sprightly History of Modern Palestine, spells out succinctly the background of national sacrifice: "Nationalism, as a concept, is seen as encompassing the lives of everyone in a given land; in reality it is a story of the few not the many, of men not women, of the wealthy not the poor."

We will be a healthier nation if we can begin to see our government for what it is: a lumbering, fairly dimwitted beast who is occasionally harnessed to work for the people but who is always on the verge of turning on them and rending their lives. That's why it needs to be closely watched and never adulated.

Howard Zinn has spent a lifetime pointing this out to us. His analyses have not always been as subtle as they might have been. But still, he has made the one, big essential point. So, I'm glad my daughter is reading his book.

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 5, 2007